Anderson's City vibrant but empty
There's a sense of low-key melancholy that runs throughout Anderson's movies, the people who inhabit them having been buffeted by the vagaries of life, fully aware that their trials may not be at an end, yet heroically persevering. This is never more obvious than in the filmmaker's latest, Asteroid City, a feature containing all of Anderson's trademarks, yet in the end lacking in energy.
The time is 1955 – the place is Asteroid City, a tiny village in the southwest that's famous for two things. It is where an annual contest devoted to young scientists, the Junior Stargazers, is held as well as the site where an asteroid landed some 5,000 years ago. A desperate group has descended on the town for this event, each family carrying their fair share of emotional baggage. War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) has his four children in tow, including his teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan). His wife has recently died, and he has yet to break the news to his offspring, much to the chagrin of his father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks). Actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) arrives with her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), and is struggling with guilt over being a bad mother as well as doubts over her career.
All of this is presented as a production for a Playhouse 90-like program, this being the framing device for the story. The film opens in black and white, presented in an aspect ratio similar to televisions of that era and introduced by a host (Bryan Cranston, channeling Rod Serling). He provides the background regarding its author, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his struggles to set the story of Asteroid City to paper. Anderson uses this device at the end of each act of the play, which is presented as a widescreen, Technicolor feature from the 1950s.
More than any other Anderson film, this one seems overpacked – there are far too many characters in the mix and as a result, many of their personalities or stories aren't fully developed, leaving us curious about them. As odd as it sounds, the effect is one where there is a great deal going on but very little in the way of narrative movement. Something profound happens to the visitors of Asteroid City, an event that would cause anyone to reevaluate their purpose in life. From near as I can tell, it has little effect on the myriad characters, their stoicism unbroken in the face of this revelation. Then again, they've learned to keep their guard up and their reaction shouldn't come as a surprise, which is all well and good. The problem is, it left me wanting more than they or Anderson were prepared to give. In theaters.
Feelings a shaky proposition
Without question, Gene Stupnitsky's No Hard Feelings is going to rub some people the wrong way. Promoted as a sex comedy of errors, its premise contains an ick factor that will take some viewers right out of the film. That's understandable, though it should be noted the questionable proposition is never followed through on, a rather thoughtful portrait concerning two alienated souls emerging instead. Some will be able to see the earnest heart that beats here; others will be too offended to see it exists.
Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 32-year-old directionless woman who lives alone in the house her mother left her and makes ends meet as an Uber driver and bartender. Unfortunately, her car gets repossessed, and she's on the verge of losing her home if she cannot pay her taxes. She stumbles upon a help wanted ad looking for a 20-something woman who is willing to date a 19-year-old boy for the summer in exchange for a used car. Desperate, Maddie responds and meets Laird and Allison Becker (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti), two helicopter parents who, long story short, want to get their awkward son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), deflowered before he leaves for Princeton in the fall. The kid is kept in the dark about this arrangement, Maddie is gung-ho to get the job done and complications ensue.
Having read this plot summation, you'll pretty much know whether this film is for you or not. The parents' motive is indefensible and, while we come to understand just why Maddie would go to the lengths she does, her actions are questionable as well. However, what develops is an engaging and at times poignant character study, as the couple in question come to find they have more in common than they suspect. Maddie's animosity over her father having abandoned her and her mother explains the self-loathing and anger at the core of her self-destructive behavior. The victim of bullying, Percy's self-esteem has taken a hit, his lack of motivation exacerbated by his parents' smothering approach to him. That he has been able to hide in the world of gaming and social media has only increased his isolation.
To be sure, there are some laughs along the way, Feldman proving to be a charming actor with crack timing, Lawrence benefiting greatly from his skill. Yet, you get the sense Stupnitsky is much more intent on moving us rather than delivering the funny. And while there are times when he manages to do both, on the whole Feelings is ultimately a near miss, undone by a third act that stumbles badly. That being said, Feldman makes an impression, and I'm eager to see what he has up his sleeve in the future. In theaters.
Predictable script undoes Daughter
There's a one-step-forward, two-steps-back quality to Catherine Hardwicke's Prisoner's Daughter, a film featuring a more than capable cast in conflict with a predictable plot. Suffering from terminal cancer, Max (Brian Cox), a convict serving a long stretch, has resigned himself to dying behind bars. However, the warden, being sympathetic to his situation and appreciative of his efforts in helping other prisoners, arranges for him to spend the rest of his days on the outside under house arrest. The only catch is, he must find someone to take him in, and the only relative he has is his daughter Maxine (Kate Beckinsale), who he hasn't spoken to in 12 years.
Resentful over having been left alone to deal with her alcoholic mother, Maxine's anger toward her father is all-consuming. However, a series of her own bad decisions have put her between a rock and a hard place. Her ex-husband is a drug addict who gives her no financial support yet heckles her to allow him to see their 12-year-old son, Ezra (Christopher Convery). The boy, in turn. is dealing with his own problems, as he's being bullied at school, his epilepsy providing his tormentors an opportunity to abuse him.
Again, there are no surprises here as the addition of Max will obviously help them solve their problems. However, the sincerity of the three principals proves engaging and results in more than a few effective scenes. The biggest surprise is Convery, who manages to be as convincing as the two screen veterans he shares the screen with. There's an intelligence behind his performance that's refreshing, and he proves adept at both quiet drama and deft humor. There's not a cloying moment in the film, and that is perhaps Hardwicke's greatest contribution, as she maintains a consistency of tone, avoiding overwrought moments, of which there could have been plenty.
Still and all, she can't stick the landing, despite the fine efforts of her cast. Hats off to Bacci for penning such lines as "I don't have any room left in my heart to make you feel better," and "We're blood, not family." Shame on him for the labored third act he saddles Hardwicke and company with, one that cribs shamelessly from Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and forces Beckinsale to deliver an ill-conceived denouement. Unlike its protagonist, Daughter fails to earn our gratitude or respect, limping towards a conclusion that isn't worthy of its characters, cast or viewers. Available via Video-On-Demand.